Highland Lakes VS Downstream Farmers — Colorado River, Texas

| April 25, 2012 | 1 Comment

Anyone who has paddled on the Colorado River below Lake Austin in the summertime knows about the frequent changes in the level and flow. Longhorn dam has historically been the last stopping point between the lake water and its trip to the Matagorda Bay system, visiting the many rice fields along the way during their growing season. This year that system will be disrupted, according to representatives from the LCRA. After last minute discussions, which were more like arguments, between farmers and people with interest in the Highland Lakes, it was decided that for the first time since 1913, no “rice water” will be released this season.

Google Maps screenshot of the Colorado River southwest of central Texas

The LCRA has a long track record of mitigating water ownership disputes. This year’s decision, though, sets a precedent in regards to dam releases. By no means is this a cut and dry case. The farmers claim that the lakes were originally created as a holding system for their irrigation water. But that doesn’t dispel the fact that a whole infrastructure has built up around the recreational and local use of lake water. Last year, the dams released more than three times the amount that the city of Austin uses in a year1.  In years with normal rainfall, this figure wouldn’t be quite as overwhelming, but it seems there is an indirect relationship to dam release and the amount of rainfall. In years with heavy rainfall, the farmers can subside on water that falls downstream of the lakes. During dry years, however, they rely more heavily on dam release, which in turn take their toll on the Highland Lakes’ water levels.

How this decision will affect us as paddlers and anglers also depends on our location up or downstream. Anglers on Lake Travis and LBJ might have noticed fish stacking up in bottlenecks making for easy picking. Where fish would normally run into feeder creeks and rivers to spawn, they now are stopped short at waterfalls created by the lowering water level. Despite the good fun while catching them, it doesn’t bode well for species like white bass that rely on shallow, moving water for their eggs to hatch.

Below Longhorn Dam, the absence of flood-like flows everyday might not be such a bad thing for fishing and paddling. Overnight campers especially will appreciate the lack of water rise at night, when the releases were historically most prevalent.  A majority of the bass from Austin to Bastrop are hybridized Guadalupe, smallmouth and spotted bass which don’t mind moving water. Finding the fish in the exaggerated current conditions created by the rice water however made fishing on the Colorado pretty challenging. Fishing the river under “normal flows” will be an enticing prospect to many anglers this summer.

In the bay systems, the water may be sorely missed. The fresh water brought in by the rivers fuels the algae, grass and baitfish populations that allow game fish to thrive. Besides that, the salinity of the water encourages different species to come closer, or go further from shore. Although it isn’t the deciding factor of coastal angling, it is yet to be seen how the decreased flow will affect Matagorda.

That said, what’s your opinion?

Randy Lucas @ACK San Marcos Store

1. http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2012/03/02/how-rice-farming-in-texas-could-still-have-a-future/

 

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Comments (1)

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  1. Captain Rich says:

    I can’t believe I am not seeing a slew of comments; down here in Key West, this sort of controversy would get comments from all over. Personally, I’ve never seen a fully successful engineering job for any of our waterways. Tight lines to you, mate.

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